Check Out the 'Utilitarian Simplicity' of Joe Boston's Italian Beef


[Photographs: Mike Gebert]

If someone asked you to decorate an Italian beef stand in the classic manner, how would you do it? You'd lay in a bunch of framed Bulls and Sox posters and memorabilia, and consider the job pretty much done. I mean, Chicago Macho is pretty much the only choice, and probably always has been for that kind of place. Right?


Sorry, you failed the test as soon as you agreed that an Italian beef stand needed to be decorated. The most proletarian of old school Chicago foods, Italian beef wasn't born and raised amid sports bar swagger, but in cheap luncheonettes where factory workers—you know, guys who actually do work work—had 20 minutes to grab a quick cheap lunch high in protein and grease before getting back to the kind of work that would kick your and my butts.

And by definition, places like that got a fresh coat of paint every ten years and that was it. At best, someone made an aesthetic choice of either sanitary white or antiseptic green, the official colors of cleanliness in the 30s and 40s.


Not many Italian beef places still have that look, all the more reason to treasure Joe Boston's Italian Beef, which dates back to 1949, as a living museum of long-ago lunch. Located in a minty-green triangle building at Grand and Chicago, the inside is a study in utilitarian simplicity. You order, they give it to you on a square of white paper, you carry the paper without spilling your fries to a table, because if you can't do that without screwing it up, nobody wants to work next to you smelting iron.


So how is it? Well, I learned one thing—don't order the combo at 2:30 in the afternoon; the sausage was a hard, shriveled mockery. The frozen fries were nothing to get jazzed about, either. But the beef, on the other hand, was first-rate, so tender it almost melted into the dipped bread with rich, oregano-heavy Italian-spice flavor. Sweet peppers and housemade giardiniera were both classically well-made as well. In all, I'd put it in the top 2 or 3 beefs in town (as Michael Nagrant did recently).

The factories that once would have packed a place like this in shifts seem mostly gone; like Johnny O's on the South Side, it's one of those places that's outlasted the businesses that it was started to serve, and waits for a new crowd to find it in its lonely little plot in the American industrial desert. Check it out before it gets decorated and the prices go up.